Court rules Texas man can sacrifice goats

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From The Freethinker comes the story of a man who battled in court for the right to practice his religion. Normally, I am for freedom of religion (as well as freedom "from" religion , of course), but there are stories that come up sometimes bring questions as to how free should people be in religious practices.

There have been numerous stories of children suffering or dying because their parents did not think God wanted their child in the hospital (here’s one tragic case recently that American Freethought reported on; a number of others can be found on whatstheharm.net ). Cases like these are all too common, and have been fairly widely reported on. Although I haven’t come across a poll confirming this, my general feeling is that most Americans would think it’s wrong to withhold critical care from children on religious grounds, even if some states have not caught up with the times.

But here’s another, stranger issue. There’s this case from Texas of a man suing for the right to sacrifice goats. According to the British magazine The Freethinker

In May 2006, [José] Merced and ten church members were preparing for religious ceremony that included an animal sacrifice when Euless police raided his home […] Subsequently, the city declined to issue a permit for Merced to conduct future ceremonies, citing rules against cruelty to animals, keeping livestock and disposing of animal waste.

In 2007, officials offered Merced a compromise: He could sacrifice chickens, which the city ordinance allows, but not goats, as he wanted.

Initially, a district court sided with the city in its refusal to allow the goat sacrifices. But a circuit court has just overturned the decision, which means Merced may be able to sacrifice goats again despite human health issues and animal cruelty laws, just because his religion (called Santería ) says he should sacrifice the goats.

Believe it or not, The U.S. Supreme Court has apparently already ruled on a similar case having to do with the Santería, finding that laws specifically targeting Santería animal sacrifices were unconstitutional. The difference here is that there appears to have been no law specifically passed to stop Merced or other followers from sacrificing goats; such sacrifices are just against laws already on the books.

As I said, I generally believe that people should be able to practice whatever religion they want. But what if the religion clearly negatively impacts the welfare of other humans and/or animals? If someone says their religion tells them to sacrifice goats, should they be allowed to do so even if it’s against the law? Who decides what animals should be sacrificed? I don’t see why religiously sacrificing a chicken is any better than sacrificing a goat in terms of animal cruelty, for example.

But then, if you disallow some religious practices, where do you stop? Should parents have the right to decide whether or not to vaccinate their kids if they think it’s against their religion? Can kids decide not to attend science class if they find it conflicts with their religion? Some issues would be more clear-cut than others, in my opinion.

I’m not sure what the line should be, but making an exception to laws for religious purposes seems like dangerous territory to me. I feel in general that laws should apply to everyone equally.